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Are tar sands expansion and Canada's high carbon emissions anti-Black?

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Adelaide Maphangane stands beside an empty water hole in the district of Mabalane, Mozambique. Image: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Flickr

As attention is focused on climate-change-fuelled fires ravaging California and Oregon, a series of "natural" disasters have swept through parts of the African continent. Across the Sahel region, millions have been devastated by floods in recent days.

In Dakar, Senegal, as much rain fell in a day as during the usual three-month rainy season. A state of emergency was declared as large swaths of the city were evacuated and at least a half dozen people perished.

Two thousand kilometres away in Niger, almost a quarter of a million people were forced from their homes when the Niger River burst its banks. At least 45 have died and the capital, Niamey, was largely submerged in the worst flooding in more than 50 years.

On the eastern side of the continent, 500,000 Sudanese were affected by the worst flooding on the Blue Nile in recorded memory. More than 100,000 lost their homes and nearly 100 were immediately killed. Many more have already died from waterborne diseases caused by the flooding and displacement.

While no single extreme weather event can be linked to rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- which recently hit a record 414.38 parts per million -- climate models predict increased rainfall intensity in much of the Sahel region.

Yet, it is extremely dry periods that are an even bigger threat to the region. More than half of Africa's landmass is affected by desertification processes that have been exacerbated by climate change. The southern part of the continent experienced its worst drought in decades in December and in recent years major droughts in Sudan, Somalia and Kenya have left tens of millions struggling to find enough food.

The Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace's ecological threat register recently concluded that 1.2 billion people were likely to be displaced over the next 30 years due to climate disturbances. Most of the countries expected to be worst hit are in Africa.

Various ecological, economic and social factors explain Africa's greater vulnerability to anthropogenic global warming. Most of the continent is directly dependent on resource sectors sensitive to climate conditions. More than half of the people living in Africa are subsistence farmers who often rely on natural rainfall, rather than irrigation, to water their crops. What's more, large swaths of the continent are arid regions with more than half of the continent already classified as dry land.

Africans bear the greatest burden yet have little responsibility for climate change. The 13 countries with the lowest per-capita CO2 emissions are in Africa.

By contrast, Canadian per capita GHG are many times greater than in most African countries, and the historical imbalance is even more stark.

Despite this, Canada is moving still further in the wrong direction with its GHG emissions rising 15 million tonnes between 2017 and 2018 (the latest numbers available). That is more than the entire historic GHG output of 11 million Burundians. It is remarkable that in this context, the Trudeau government purchased a climate destabilizing tar sands pipeline in 2018. As a result, there is almost no chance Canada will reach its (insufficient) GHG reduction commitments under the Paris climate accord.

In 2017, Justin Trudeau told oil executives in Houston, "no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there." Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson echoed this sentiment a few days ago, telling a CBC interviewer it would be "silly" for Canada not to extract its oil in the coming decades.

What do environmentally conscious Ugandans hear when the "environmentalist" prime minister of an already wealthy country, with one of the world's highest per-capita carbon footprints, says it can't leave highly carbon emitting bitumen in the ground?

With about 80 per cent of the world's Black people living in Africa -- generally low per capita GHG areas that are highly vulnerable to climate disturbances -- we cannot ignore the racialized impacts of climate change. 

A decade ago, Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey labelled climate change a "death sentence for Africa." In To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa Bassey explained, "there is a climate debt that must be recognized and paid. The payment is not all about finance but principally about decolonizing the atmospheric space and redistributing the meagre space left. Developed countries already occupy 80 per cent of the space."

There is no chance Canada can pay off its share of this climate debt while continuing to expand its carbon footprint.

Bianca Mugyenyi is an author, activist and former co-executive director of The Leap. She currently directs the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute.

Image: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Flickr

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